Today’s task is about tithing and almsgiving. The fathers write extensively about almsgiving and very little about tithing, and when they do it is mainly referring to the Old Testament practice rather than anything done in the Church. Not only do they write and preach about almsgiving, they put it into practice. You will scarcely find a saint who did not practice acts of charity and show a generosity of spirit.
The setting of the topic “tithing” troubled me in many respects. Maybe because I have always been brought up with an Orthodox mind-set, and this idea seems so foreign. When I Googled the word for tithing in Greek, the first couple of pages were from the Mormons, and the rest till quite far down were from Pentecostals. When I did get to an Orthodox page, in the main, they were referencing Old Testament custom and practices, and sometimes critical, as in people pay their ten percent, and think “OK, that’s it! I’ve done my bit for the year. Tick that off the list. Job done!” We know that isn’t really the point. I’m also not saying that we should not give this amount away if we can. I’m not saying we should not give regularly, that we should not commit ourselves to a certain amount, come what may etc. There are many noble things to be said for tithing, but it also has some quiet dangers (mainly of the self-righteous kind).
A search of the Thesaurae Linguae Graecae – a fantastic collection of the majority of Greek writing from the time of Homer and continuing to the Early Modern period, both secular and ecclesial – tells a similar tale. Lots on almsgiving, next to nothing on tithing, except in passing reference. It does not seem to be a common practice widely referenced in the Church.
In the Early Church, with a small tight knit community, there was a sharing of possessions and goods. We find this economic model in monastic communities today. Moreover, many monasteries, in Greece certainly, also give alms from their excess. There was a story in the Greek press the other week, about the Monastery of Vatopedi continuing to fund the provision of chicken to food banks and soup kitchens run by various diocese and in some cases local authorities during this economic crisis.
Moreover, the Church Fathers were at the forefront of Social Justice in the third, fourth, fifth centuries and beyond. We only have to look at St. Basil and his building of hospitals and other social institutions, or St. John Chrysostom, who probably spoke more extensively on wealth and poverty, than any other issue.
I did wonder what it meant for me. I live in a culture and society where there is a Welfare State. Healthcare, for example, is paid for through universal taxation, and free for all at the point of demand. For us, in the UK, health services would be unthinkable without it. Gone are the days when my grandmother, a young widow, died of tuberculosis because she could barely afford to feed her children, let alone pay for a decent doctor. It is not perfect, but it was founded on Christian principles outlined in a report that caused William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, to comment that it was the “the first time anyone had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament”.
How do we show our almsgiving today? Especially when the obvious need is less, and the centralised organisation of health and welfare, in this part of the world, at least, is more equitable, accessible and efficient than lots of charitable efforts that vary from place to place and in what they cater for.
Certainly, we should support the Church, for manifold reasons. I think this was apparent in my recent post on the tradition of Forty Liturgies during Advent and the benefits of providing for these. Also, why should we be stingy in our giving to Church, when we would happily treat ourselves to a luxury coffee, a regular magazine subscription, internet and TV subscriptions and so on? If we can afford these – surely we can afford to support the Church, which provides so much more.
However, it does help if the Church is seen to be active, open and supportive , i.e. if the parish practices charity itself, and is not wasteful with the money entrusted to it. I was brought up in a family that regularly gave more than ten percent of our meagre income anonymously each month. Then a new priest came, he stopped the senior citizens luncheons, because they cost money. He stopped the Bible study because he could hire out the hall for salsa classes and make a profit. He set up a list of charges for all the various services and put up signs, that made the back of the Church look like a fast food joint. “Marriage, Baptism and fries £500”.
At the same time, vast amounts were spent on new marble (the Church had marble floors already), new icons, new chandeliers, lots of additional bling. Every sermon, seemed to ask for money, but no charitable work was being done. Lights were left on, more furniture bought, yet nothing for the sick, the elderly, the poor and so on. Needless to say, seeing that the Church building was now more important than the people of God, many families that supported that parish, even helped establish it, started to send their funds elsewhere, to neighbouring parishes that continued with their social outreach. This is more than a kind of sour grapes, there is an underlying spiritual law to all this – the more you give the more you receive. Not that we should give, in order to receive, but the more you give the greater blessings you gain.
I recall Fr. Zacharias recounting something Elder Sophrony used to say, and I hope he forgives me if I get the exact details wrong. On Mount Athos milk was scarce, in fact this was the case in many parts of rural Greece. (Cow’s milk was rare; sheep and goats milk more generally available, but there was no real milk distribution system) . People drank evaporated milk that came in small cans. This was the case for the hermits too. It was quite common for the hermits of Mount Athos to help each other out and be charitable to each other. Fr. Sophrony noticed that whenever he was down to his last can of milk, but gave it away, because that is what the Gospel demands, the very next day, and sometimes even sooner, a pilgrim or another monk would come along with a donation of at least two cans. Double the amount! He didn’t give it away to get any return, but the observation was clear, when he did give it away, a double blessing occurred in its stead.
The other reason why this topic troubled me in the 30 (40) days of blogging challenge seems to be taking me away from the original purpose of the Cyberdesert (along with many others these past few days). This was never intended as a personal, opinion piece site. Mainly, I was interested in presenting texts from the hesychastic tradition of the Church, so perhaps I should have blogged on a theme. It was only ever meant for a few choice pieces. So maybe I should not have used this blog for the challenge.
However, I did start a more personal, opinion piece blog, over at Counterattack – Fighting the Passions but had little time to maintain it. I think next time I try this challenge I might take the post over there.
Nevertheless, in answer, to some extent, to today’s challenge I did reblog two posts from that site here:
You might also want to look at:
Also the recent talk given at the London School of Economics by Metropolitan Ignatios of Demetrias: The Orthodox Church of Greece and the Economic Crisis